Starting From Nothing

I have always found it fascinating to hear how writers get their ideas or how they begin their stories. For me, stories sometimes begin with watching someone closely and imagining what it would be like to be them—or if not them, then someone in their lives. Then, that maybe gets juxtaposed with an unrelated idea in just a way to make a story emerge. Or it begins with an object or an item and a character. Or it may begin by putting someone in a situation and seeing what they do to get out of that situation. Or it may be a bunch of half-truths knitted together all slip-shod and rumpled just enough to make a story.

But on rare occasion, when I’m feeling very free and exploratory, I just start writing and see what happens, where my ideas take me.

Don’t get me wrong…I have a kernel of something before I begin. An image, maybe, or an idea of a character, but mostly, the beginning is dreamy, ghostly, ephemeral. It’s hard to pin down. And pinning it down isn’t the goal….the goal is to see what emerges.

And much of the time, it’s total garbage at first—a weaving of plastic grocery store bags and corn husks. Or a castle of damp playing cards. A tower of cans and bottles.

But sometimes—the best times—something sturdy and completely unexpected emerges. And suddenly, I’ve created something out of nothing.

Which is one of the main reasons I write.

Writing in Pencil

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I am a recovering perfectionist. That’s probably the best way to put it.

You may feel that being a perfectionist is a good thing? After all, how can a quest for the ideal ever be a bad thing and shouldn’t we always try to do our best?  Well, a job well done is important, and I am not advocating sloppy work, but perfectionists can become stalled and unable to function simply because perfection is hard to achieve because it’s, well, perfection. Perfectionists know this on a cognitive level, but deep down, they feel that if something can’t be perfect, then why bother tackling it at all?  Or many have the idea that, more often than not, the results of their work will fall far short of perfection and this realization causes them to become frozen in their own doubt.

That’s how it is with me, anyway, but over the years, I have learned to cope with this paralysis in order to be moderately productive in life. When it comes to writing, this is where pencils come in.

I love all writing implements, but I have a special love for pencils. Pencils with large erasers. 

When I am in doubt about my writing, frozen in front of a computer screen (and while I know we can hit “delete” on a computer keyboard, it’s just not the same thing, psychologically), when I’m not sure where to start, I drag out a yellow legal pad and open up my pencil box (pictured above).

“Write something crappy,”  I tell myself. “Go on. It’s just for fun!”

I start writing then. I don’t allow myself to stop, even if I think what I’m writing is stupid, because the idea is to just get started. In pencil.

Why pencil? Well, for one thing, it’s casual. It’s breezy. It’s reminiscent of school and homework, nothing serious.  One of my high school classmates (I couldn’t tell you who) once said–when catching me doing math homework in pen–that doing math in pen is like picking your nose with a wire hook. I needed to be able to EARASE!  He was genuinely mortified that I couldn’t erase and the same is often true with writing. Therefore, pencils bring me back to the world of homework and drafting ideas and sketching concepts, not official “sign-this-in-black-ink” documentation thoughts of which pen evokes.

Pencil lead is ephemeral–at least theoretically. I have journal entries going back 30 years that are written in pencil, so I’m not so sure it’s as ephemeral as we think, but because it is so easily erased, I think of it that way. Pencil isn’t meant to be lasting, which allows me to write something that is equally ephemeral. When I write in pencil, I say to myself, “This is not permanent. I will improve this. This is just for now.”  And that gets me going.

The yellow legal pad also plays a role–legal pads are for jotting ideas, notes, brainstorming….they aren’t for preserving forever. When combined with pencil lead, it’s the perfect recipe for a paralytic writer to overcome perfectionism.

You can erase this, pencil says. It’s okay if it’s crap.

At some point in this process, I feel confident in what I’m doing to move onto a computer.  Not that I think it’s perfect, but by then, I’m at the “it’ll do” phase and I’ve passed the perfectionist hump. Sometimes, I will write a whole first draft in pencil and then re-invent the new draft as I write on the computer, adding scenes, taking whole new angles, changing POV, etc. but the bones of the thing are down in pencil.

Then, once I have a draft on the computer, I shred the yellow legal papers covered in pencil. I love doing that, too, and it’s also an important part of the process, for me.

So, if anyone out there suffers from perfection-induced writing paralysis, you might try digging out a pencil or two, with a nice new eraser, and see if this works for you!

When the Water Rises…

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Let me begin with the disclaimer that our family was not hurt by Hurricane Harvey.  We are all okay and so is our house. So is most of our neighborhood.

But on Saturday night, the 26th of August–technically the 27th of August since it was 1:30 am–the shit got real. This picture is our street in from of our house. The water slowly began to rise and cover the street, which it had done in the past, but still, it was pretty intense. I–along with my neighbors, whose flashlights I could see in their windows, or dancing under umbrellas as they ran out to the street to get a more intimate view–couldn’t sleep and paced the house, checking the front, the back, the sides, for water rising to the house.

I focused on a tree in our front yard and made a plan that if the water went past that tree, I’d take more drastic measures–waking everyone else up and moving our special items to the second floor. All the photos and books….

We are lucky to have a second floor. Many people are not so fortunate.

To cut to the chase, the water never made it past that second tree and by morning, it had drained away considerably.  But in the morning, some of our neighborhood (closer to the bayou) had flooded as the water rose and the bayou and their houses became one. Now, they have their houses turned inside out on the street–piles of sheetrock and flooring and couches and furniture piled outside their homes.

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This photo was taken hours after the original flood where the bayou looked like the ocean. That grass wasn’t even visible then–the water had subsided considerably by the time we took this photo.

Other parts of Houston looked like this:

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And this:

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I waited to write this because really, there is not much to say.  What can you say? It rained damn hard and the city flooded?  It’s no one’s fault–it’s nature. It’s no reason–it’s nature. It happens. It is what it is. Humans have war. Humans have death. Humans have floods. We can’t escape that, no matter where we live. Where we live does not matter–the water can always rise, or fires can burn, trouble can find us.

My family was spared, but most of the people I know had some loss, whether it be a car, a house, or their favorite personal items, even the life of someone they loved.  I have nothing to say to that to bring any kind of justice to it. There is nothing to be said except that I am so very sorry and it really sucks and we will have to move on.

That’s the thing. You never know when the rain will come, when the water will rise. One day, all is going well, and the next day, you’ll see signs to “gas your car, a storm brewing in the gulf.”

Then water will rise and it will creep past your door and enter your house. All the important things you keep close to you will be under water. When the water drains away, the heat and humidity will bring on the rot and the mold.

It is what it is.

So in the end, there really is no takeaway from this other than three things, according to me:

First: When the waters rise and your world floods, you need to love one another and help each other out as best as you can because in the end, you are a human in a wide world against oceans and wind and rain. So, hold each other up. Help one another gut houses, move belongings, bake bread, do laundry, give fellow humans a place to rest. Love one another.

Second: When it’s not raining, appreciate the calm.  Write about the rain when it’s calm. Reflect on what’s important when it’s calm, but remember. All good art comes from pain–everything has a price and this is the price of art.  So when it’s not raining, take time to hone your art, drawing on the bank of that pain.

Third: We may need to learn about letting go. I have not lost anything in this hurricane, but I have in the past. I have had to throw out books and papers and clothing from water damage and it’s heart breaking. But those are just physical items.  What matters–what really matters–is the ideas, the thoughts, the knowledge, and that is not so easily destroyed.

And with that, we can start again.